As a little child, I unreservedly loved Christmas, but about the time I entered high school, I often found myself depressed around the end of the year. Christmas break means far more free time than usual, and Idaho winters were typically harsh and bleak, which meant I usually spent that free time indoors, where there was little to inhibit endless self-reflection.
A little seasonal melancholy is not inappropriate, nor is it necessarily destructive. When a man lays down to sleep at night, he is entirely alone with his thoughts, for conjuring sleep depends on complete inactivity. Nothing remains to distract a man from his failures, his hopes, and worries whilst he waits for sleep to come, and so many men make vows to God to live better while on the cusp of oblivion. That time between Christmas and the return to school is, for many students, like a prolonged laying down to rest. These eight or ten days are the most leisurely in the whole calendar, for during this time, there are far less work to distract a fellow from the ennui, boredom, discontent and disenchantment which bubble below the surface of his soul the other fifty weeks of the year. Unlike summer, there is no job to attend to over Christmas break, and teachers are far less apt to assign Christmas reading than summer reading. I cannot give a universal account of the Christmas blues, but I know that, often enough, what arises in the human heart at the end of the year is not merely a need to feel better (as Lewis once said, “a bottle of port would do that”), but a need to do better.
To this end, I would like to offer a series of meditations on fighting the Christmas blues. These meditations are intended only for those readers who believe they are at least somewhat culpable for their blues, and who are interested in taking an active approach to struggling against melancholy. However, for the reader who believes the blues are entirely beyond his control, these suggestions may nonetheless make for a more satisfying Advent.
Give up something during Advent. When I was younger, it was not so much the preparation for Christmas which began the day after Thanksgiving as it was the celebration of Christmas. Precious little distinguished the 3rd of December from the 25th, for it was all one long train of fudge and sugar cookies from the point the leftover stuffing was finished. By the time the 25th rolled around, all I was really doing was more of the same. Presents rolled in early, a variety of different parties dotted the calendar from the first week of December through the last. The 25th was disorienting, for nothing in particular really arrived on that day. Nothing new began. Everything was simply carrying on as before. The same music, the same parties, the same rich food. The 25th came and nothing changed. A few presents were opened, and then everyone was supposed to feel… what? Far happier than the day before? But why? It is unreasonable to demand a man simply begin acting much happier when you have given him nothing to be happy about.
If Christmas now centers around gifts, it is simply because opening gifts on the 25th is the last remaining vestige of asceticism which attends the celebration of Christ’s birth. Modern men who are willing to wait for nothing else still wait to open gifts. Festal food and music and gatherings are celebrated all throughout December, but waiting for gifts is a monk-like practice which attends Christmas for those who turn up their noses at all other forms of worldly renunciation.
However, if a man opposes fasting of all kinds, why fast from opening presents? If it is more joyous to wait for gifts, why not wait for prime rib and Époisses de Bourgogne, as well? Renunciation makes more sense during Advent than any other time of year, for asceticism is a kind of holy pageant wherein the remarkable Christian history of waiting is publicly performed on a massive scale. Asceticism is a drama, even if it is performed with no more talent and poise than the average ten-year-old boy dressed in shabby robes for a Christmas play at church.
Giving up fancy food and parties during Advent means that something substantial changes on the 25th. The weakness of the human heart (and human stomach) are acknowledged in fasting, for the pleasure which comes from breaking the fast is married to the spiritual joy of the holy day. It is hard to be suddenly happy, but it is easy to be suddenly happy for longed-for wine and cheese and roast beef.
Celebrate all 12 days of Christmas. With the revival of fortune which #liturgy has enjoyed over the last fifteen years, more American Christians are celebrating twelve days of Christmas now than when I was a child. However, committing 12 full days to the celebration of Christmas requires practice, patience, and preparation, and unless some kind of fasting has been suffered in the days leading up to the 25th, the family will be burned out on Christmas before the two turtle doves arrive.
When my children were still quite young, I recognized that opening a room full of presents in the span of an hour only made them impatient and ungrateful for what they had. “He who has much wants much,” as Boethius says, and the tendency of a child with a dozen boxes to open is to plow through them all in as anxious and jittery a manner as possible, quickly discarding the unwrapped gift in the hope that another box has something even better. Birthdays were similarly miserable, for both my girls became irritable and unhappy in the gift aftermath.
Several years ago, my wife and I began making a concerted effort to keep all 12 days of Christmas, and so we limited the children (and ourselves) to opening just one gift a day. However, 12 days of celebration does not mean 12 days of nothing-but-celebration, which I think both unenjoyable and unsustainable. The 25th kicks off a spate of celebrations, but each day between Nativity and Theophany (on January 6th) need only contain one special activity, like a trip to the theater, a game, a visit to some little spot out of town. We try to give fewer things and more experiences, vacations, and nice meals, so that the celebration of Christmas is more like a secular expression of the worship of Christ’s nativity; celebrations at home should be as liturgical, orderly, and lavish as midnight mass at St. Paul’s. Teenagers also become depressed during the break because they miss their friends from school, and parents could kill two birds with one stone if one of the treats offered over the 12 days was an outing with schoolmates.
While the gift of cheap, disposable toys is not entirely out of the question, I find it depressing to give gifts for Christmas which I know will not last the year materially, but will fade quickly from memory. To not remember what was given last year because it was either broken or abandoned by March certainly dampens any excitement at going out to buy gifts this year. I should say the same for husbands and wives, who ought to make it a goal to give at least one gift every year (or every two or three years) which the other person will keep until they die.
Christmas starts, Christmas ends. When a fellow fasts in advance of Christmas, then celebrates Christmas for 12 days, the holiday has a genuine beginning and a genuine ending. When I was a teenager, the indeterminate nature of the Christmas season made the whole affair seem tawdry and arbitrary. If we continue celebrating Christmas after the 25th, why? At what point is Christmas genuinely over?
After a month of Christmas parties and fudge, attending one more Christmas party on the 29th seemed to me a desperate, gluttonous attempt to keep the party going, even though everyone was already quite done with it, perhaps in the same way teenage boys at a slumber party like to stay up as late as possible, even though no one really enjoys it after 2 in the morning. If Christmas is celebrated for 12 days, though, one has a fitting point to take down the tree and the decorations, and the tree is not taken down simply because everyone is sick of it. How sad for Christmas to end simply because it has become too boring, too expensive, and too much a stomach ache?
I cannot guarantee that liturgical fasting and feasting will keep the Christmas blues at bay, but I can promise such preparation and proper celebrating will grant Christmas a more orderly and less arbitrary quality, and that the whole season will accordingly feel less like the reckless worship of the human stomach.